Posted April 10, 2009

Because they’re still there

Duo shares a commitment to Philadelphia’s architectural wallflowers



Because they’re still there

Duo shares a commitment to Philadelphia’s architectural wallflowers
Friday, April 10, 2009
"Sometimes it’s a strange curve or shape, a great sign on top of a very traditional brick structure or unique lettering,” said Betsy Manning, a Temple University photographer, describing what catches her eye when she drives around the city.

“Sometimes a friend says, ‘I just saw the ugliest building I’ve ever seen; you’re gonna love it.’ That happens to me all the time.”

Manning is talking about what she calls the “architectural wallflowers” of Philadelphia, a term she coined to refer to those forgotten structures from the middle of the 20th century that pepper Philadelphia’s landscape.

“They blend in. They’re not noticed, not recognized. But they’re terrific,” she said.

You will not find Manning’s wallflowers listed among the roughly one to two dozen architecturally significant, and therefore well-preserved, Modernist landmarks that our city boasts.
“There are too many structures that are unrecognized — or worse, destroyed — because they lack the pedigree of their famous counterparts,” said Manning. “We are guilty of architectural myopia. There are a vast amount of contemporary structures, facades, details and motifs all around us that need to be researched, documented and saved.”

Manning has undertaken a project to photograph her wallflowers. Libraries, hospitals, schools, churches, municipal buildings, police stations, recreation centers and private residences, built between 1930 and 1970, are all represented in her database of 300 (and growing) entries, which also tracks information such as the architect’s name and date the property was constructed.
Photo by Betsy Manning
“What appeals to me in the architecture of this period is the use of repetition — the simplicity of the grid or when a pattern is so tight it becomes a singular design element.” —Besty Manning


According to Ken Finkel, distinguished lecturer in American Studies at Temple’s College of Liberal Arts and former executive director of arts and culture at WHYY, these wallflowers tell us a lot about the city before deindustrialization. “There was an optimism that the city was going places, but that didn’t happen. Industrial Philadelphia collapsed and has only found its footing in the last decade. Of course, Temple is part of that rise,” he said.

So, it seems fitting that it is at Temple where we find a pair of scholar/researchers reaching back to further understand the lost architecture of Philadelphia’s Modernist past.

Finkel’s longstanding interest in Philadelphia architecture is apparent through, among numerous projects, his work on Philadelphia Then and Now: 60 Sites Photographed in Past and Present (Dover Publications, 1988). That book juxtaposes early images of Philadelphia from the 1850s to the 1950s — those Finkel selected from the Library Company of Philadelphia, where he served as curator of prints and photographs — with current shots of the same sites.

He met Manning while she was a student in his "Culture of Philadelphia" class as part of Temple’s Master of Liberal Arts program. That’s when he learned of her extensive database, a project that led to her discovery of — and master’s thesis on — the work of underappreciated local architect Irwin Stein.

“When I was asked to put together an exhibit in the American studies corridor at Temple, naturally I thought of Betsy,” explained Finkel. The exhibit of 10 photographs can also be found online at, where the pair carries on a conversation about the images through a blog called Architectural Wallflowers: Introverted Buildings in Philadelphia. Their detailed analysis of each photograph demonstrates an enthusiasm for their work that moves beyond the walls of the classroom and bypasses the time constraints of a semester.

“Here’s a city at its peak of population producing interesting architecture that has not been worked on by anyone except by Betsy and maybe a few other people. It’s an opportunity to further understand Modern Philadelphia,” Finkel said.

The words Finkel uses to describe Philadelphia’s lost architecture may equally apply to Manning’s project: “What’s consistent is a brightness, an openness and willingness to accept light, a comfort level with urban life.”